It’s the pits!

Proposals to build a new coalmine in Cumbria face a judicial review after Cumbria County Council reconsidered its decision to grant West Cumbria Mining planning permission for the site. Harry Brunskill explains the issues.

I understand why councillors voted for the Whitehaven mine – jobs.

But we can no longer support new jobs per se. We have to ask what these jobs would be producing – are they good or bad for the Green Recovery (please let’s have one!) I’ve been unemployed. It didn’t kill me. (I think we have to consider universal income – it’s not so far from what we’re getting from this government, but cheaper and more effective.) Do you think the workers in the German plants that produced thalidomide would want to continue working if they knew what we know now – or would they prefer the dole?

Burning fossil fuels is worse as it threatens the survival of human beings. I’m not given to exaggeration. The science says it.

The effects of the climate crisis are here now. We have triggered five of nine feedback loops and some scientists conclude collapse is imminent – within decades – unless we act responsibility and immediately. So what we need are green jobs only – home insulation, non-intensive farming, solar, wave and wind power, etc.

Now is the ideal opportunity, as jobs in industries like aviation disappear, hopefully for good.

Mike Berners-Lee is leading the charge to make Cumbria a centre of excellence for alternative industry and jobs, which gives a glimmer of hope.

But even thinking about authorising a new mine makes Cumbria appear not only backward, but, frankly, stupid. This Channel 4 piece destroys both the environmental and economic arguments for the pit and nothing in the latest application changes this.

The core issue is still that the mining company and Cumbria County Council are both failing to recognise and properly account for the huge end-use emissions (nine million tonnes CO2 per annum) that the mine would result in if it reached full production mid-decade onwards. The argument that we can ignore those emissions because a mine elsewhere (in the US) would have to leave the same amount of coal in the ground that Cumbria coal displaces from the UK and European market by selling at a cheaper price is spurious, as the clip explains.

Lord Deben, chair of the UK’s climate change committee points out in a letter to the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, that the mine would “increase global emissions and have an appreciable impact on the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets. The mine is projected to increase UK emissions by 0.4Mt CO2e per year. This is greater than the level of annual emissions we have projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050.”

Other claims made by the mining company beggar belief – starting with the absurd notion that the pit would be “broadly carbon neutral.”

Assumptions justifying the pit have been shown to be unfounded – for instance, the claim that there will be no viable, commercial alternative to coking coal in steelmaking until 2050.

Lord Deben’s letter says, “Coking coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035, using a combination of hydrogen direct reduction and electric arc furnace technology to meet our recommendation that UK ore-based steelmaking be near-zero emissions by 2035.”

The council projected only one new green steel making plant in Europe by 2035, but it is clear that there are many more companies opening new “green steel” capacity from 2024.

Even if this was not the case, to encourage reliance upon a polluting industry of the past would inevitably inhibit the emergence of these new, cleaner industrial processes.

Then there is the overlooked possibility of more recycling: a lot of aircraft steel is waiting to be recycled and there will be even more when people get out of their cars – which will have to happen, either in a planned way or as a result of environmental degradation.

So there may even be a glut of steel for recycling and I’m told plans for the Port Talbot complex to switch to recycling are being considered.

The argument against the pit should be simple – we can’t afford to discharge any more CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels under any circumstances.

The mining company have obfuscated the issue – just as the tobacco and oil companies did.

Harry Brunskill is a retired journalist and teacher with a 45-year-long interest in the environment.

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Image: Cumbria. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Author: Nilfanion, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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